Truth. I love reading historical fiction because real people convince me, even when the story seems unbelievable. For the same reason I enjoy writing historical fiction. Fiction gives truth a flavorful platform.
Research. My ancestors gleaned fleece off hedges and grain in the field to feed and clothe the family. I, too, glean – for information to accurately portray the people, time and place. This is the most time consuming and challenging part of writing historical fiction. Like gleaning the hedges, information comes in bits and pieces.
My gleaning began with what was on my own book shelf – written stories, genealogies, and photographs. Many times I stared into the eyes of those people and asked, “Who are you?”
I searched in books and the internet for details about how poor people lived in early nineteenth century England – transportation, lighting, housing, agriculture and so on. My ancestors’ achievements, occupations, decisions leading to tragedy, religious affiliation, social class and education – all gave clues as to what they were like. The more I discovered, the more challenged and inspired I became.
I learned to never give up on the elusive. Each year ancestry websites release mew information regarding ships’ passenger lists, convict lists, immigrations details, etc. If I failed to find what I was looking for, I put it off for a while and tried again later.
Identification. Strong characters that evoke emotion are the basis for character driven fiction.
When the reader identifies with the thoughts and feelings of at least one of the main characters she will be drawn into that person’s world. Out of necessity the writer concocts the dialogue, but it should be realistic, keeping to the unique personalities of each character.
Names. Real or invented? This is a personal decision. For my first book, I chose to keep real first names of the family because I like them and for me they give authenticity to the story. I found surnames that would have been known in the area at that time and some that resemble the originals. There is one name in “Stone’s Hope” that is very unusual. Can you guess how I came up with it?
Vocabulary. People from past eras and social classes had different vocabulary and speech patterns than we do. I decided not to use dialect which might slow or distract the reader. Instead I gave used different speech patters or words with a smattering of dialect to distinguish between social classes and to give the flavor of time and place.
Vocabulary, word order and word meaning have changed over the years. I did not want to lose the reader by using archaic English. Neither did I want the historical characters to act or sound like 21st century Americans, especially in the use of idioms which dominate our speech today.
Respect. The real people in a fiction story have no way to defend their reputations. I approached this with sensitivity, not wanting to invade privacy in some matters.